Like other presidents before him, Donald Trump has failed to negotiate a deal to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But unlike other presidents, he has done it in a particularly Trumpian fashion: through his own ignorance and screw-ups, all while proclaiming that he was about to achieve a monumental victory — one so remarkable that a Nobel Peace Prize would soon be bestowed upon him.
Yet now we learn that not only did Trump not get the denuclearization he sought, he subjected the United States to this humiliation:
North Korea issued a $2 million bill for the hospital care of comatose American Otto Warmbier, insisting that a U.S. official sign a pledge to pay it before being allowed to fly the University of Virginia student from Pyongyang in 2017.
The presentation of the invoice — not previously disclosed by U.S. or North Korean officials — was extraordinarily brazen even for a regime known for its aggressive tactics.
But the main U.S. envoy sent to retrieve Warmbier signed an agreement to pay the medical bill on instructions passed down from President Trump, according to two people familiar with the situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The bill went to the Treasury Department, where it remained — unpaid — throughout 2017, the people said. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration later paid the bill, or whether it came up during preparations for Trump’s two summits with Kim Jong Un.
Imagine for a moment the paroxysms of rage Fox News and the rest of the conservative media would be in right now if this had happened during the Obama administration. They’d cry that President Barack Obama was a traitor, a weakling, someone unfit to walk past the White House, let alone sit in the Oval Office. There would be a week’s worth of spittle-flecked segments about the shame brought upon us by our pathetic excuse for a president. A real man, they’d say, would have torn up that bill and shoved it down Kim’s throat.
Now, we should say that Trump may have decided to tell the U.S. diplomat in charge to sign the document if that’s what was necessary to get Warmbier released, but without any intention of paying the money. Which would have been a reasonable decision to make. But it’s difficult not to see this as part of a larger picture in which Trump has been embarrassingly solicitous toward Kim.
You may remember that in February, when the two met in Hanoi, Trump defended Kim on the subject of Warmbier’s treatment as though the North Korean dictator was Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said of the Warmbier episode, adding that Kim “feels badly about it.”
That performance was so appalling that even many Republicans were disgusted with the president. Nevertheless, one might be able to say that it was worth it for Trump to debase himself in that manner if it had actually produced some kind of breakthrough with Pyongyang.
But it didn’t. Nor did it last month when Trump abruptly canceled a new set of sanctions against North Korea in a tweet, leaving his administration scrambling to pretend that they weren’t blindsided by the statement. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained that “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
Indeed he does like him, despite the fact that Kim is one of the world’s most brutal dictators (or perhaps because of that fact). “We fell in love,” Trump has said of their relationship. “He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.” This romance, however, has not produced a nuclear breakthrough, despite two summits and Trump’s regular insistence that a deal is on its way.
Why? What it comes down to is that Trump has an absurd faith in his alleged negotiating prowess, which we long ago realized was a fiction. He has so much faith in it, in fact, that he never bothered to familiarize himself with the relevant facts on the subject of North Korea and nuclear weapons. Before the first Trump-Kim summit last June, the New York Times reported that “aides who have recently left the administration say Mr. Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production, and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.” Who needs to know about that boring stuff?
After that summit ended with just a perfunctory statement signed by the two leaders pledging to “work toward” denuclearization, Trump declared victory. Upon returning to the United States, Trump tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” then told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos during an interview, “He’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.”
But Kim was not de-nuking, and it did not start then. North Korea continued to advance its weapons program. The second summit broke down quickly, notwithstanding Trump and Kim’s deep and abiding love for one another.
Trump has never grappled with the fundamental fact underlying this whole issue: Kim believes, and not without reason, that his nuclear weapons are what keeps him in power and alive. If he didn’t have them, he could suffer the same fate as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, both deposed and killed. If there’s something we can offer Kim that would be enticing enough for him to risk the fate of his regime in exchange for getting it, we haven’t found it yet.
So while other presidents couldn’t solve that conundrum, they weren’t dumb enough to think that the solution lay in groveling at the feet of the North Korean leader and telling everyone a deal was around the corner. When his presidency is over, this will be the story of Trump’s dealings with North Korea: an ignorant, impulsive president making grandiose claims about what he could accomplish, then making a fool out of himself. And with absolutely nothing to show for it.